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‘Right-to-work’ is repealed in victory for organized labor

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

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Updated: Mar. 24, 2023, 5:09 p.m. Published: Mar. 24, 2023, 1:57 p.m.

In December 2012, union protesters stand outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing Tuesday protesting against the Right to Work vote. (Mike Mulholland | MLive Media GroupMLive Media Group

By Simon Schuster |

Michigan has become the first state in nearly 60 years to undo “right-to-work,” nearly one decade after it became law in the state.

The stroke of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pen signed a three-bill package into law that repealed the policy, which prevented unions from requiring employees to join a union or pay fees in order to work in a unionized workplace.

The legislation covers unions both public and private sectors, and a third bill reinstated union wages on all state projects, a policy known as prevailing wage. Right-to-work will effectively remain in place for public sector employees, however, thanks to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“Right-to-work” was a deeply controversial policy, as heated debate about its economic impact continued throughout the 10 years it was law in Michigan. Polling suggested the policy enjoyed some popularity among the public, and Whitmer signed the bills in private with the news announced via press release.

“Today, we are coming together to restore workers’ rights, protect Michiganders on the job, and grow Michigan’s middle class,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Michigan workers are the most talented and hard-working in the world and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. ... Let’s continue delivering for working people and ensuring Michigan is open for business.”

Organized labor and the hundreds of thousands of members who belong to Michigan unions play an enormous role in state Democratic politics, and the repeal had been on the party’s agenda since they took control of state government in the last election.

Aside from some pro-labor progressives, however, Democrats had largely avoided discussing a repeal in public until House Democrats abruptly disclosed their plans in early March. Less than 24 hours later, the legislation had passed the chamber on a party-line vote. The next week, the bills moved through the Senate with similar speed. At each stage union members turned out in force to show their support for the long-awaited reversal.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the nation’s largest unions, on Friday called the legislation a “massive win for Michigan workers.”

“The Governor and the legislators responsible for passing this law have ushered in a bright future for Michigan. One where workers have better safety standards, higher wages, a louder voice on the job and the uninhibited freedom of association in the workplace that they need and deserve,” Fred Zuckerman, Teamsters general secretary-treasurer, said in a statement.

The “right to work” bills contain $1 million appropriations to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to help implement the repeal. This makes them immune from a voter-initiated referendum that could later undo them. When first running for office in 2018, Whitmer pledged to veto a non-appropriations bill containing such spending provisions and renewed that intent with an executive directive in 2019.

“I have made a promise to restore workers’ rights in Michigan,” Whitmer said at an event earlier this week. “I have fought against the creation of this barrier in the first place. I did not ask the legislature to put that part into the bill and it certainly is not on my agenda. But I am going to sign a bill that restores workers’ rights.”

The reinstatement of prevailing wage and repeal of ‘right-to-work’ are the latest in a series of significant policy changes by Whitmer and Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers. With trifecta control of state government for the first time in 40 years, Democrats have moved quickly to undo some of the key policies enacted during the tenure of Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder recently penned a column in The Detroit News arguing right-to-work’s repeal would mean Michigan is “closed for business,” not open.

Democrats have undone cuts in Michigan’s match of the Earn Income Tax Credit, the taxation of pension income, added protections for LGBTQ Michiganders into the state’s civil rights law. A package of legislation confronting gun violence is also nearing passage.

“This is tangible proof that the Republican attack on organized labor has failed. We’re entering a new chapter in Michigan,” Sen. Darrin Camilleri said in a statement.

Business and conservative groups had been prepared to decry the long-anticipated signing for some time.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a main right-to-work proponent, called the repeal a “massive, unforced error.”

Joseph Lehman, the organization’s president, said the repeal will harm “Michigan’s ability to compete globally and signals to the world that there are better places than Michigan to live, work, invest and create jobs.

“Compelling support for organized labor does directly and immediately harm tens of thousands who will now be fired if they choose not to support a union,” he claimed.

He noted leadership of major unions like the United Auto Workers had recently been convicted of embezzlement.

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